England Challenges of Nonconformist Research (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Non-Anglican Church Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Challenge Of Dissenter Research

The present text includes a wide variety of sources to give some idea of the diversity available. It is impossible to show every type of record for every denomination and the researcher is therefore encouraged to seek others of similar type for their ancestors’ chosen religious persuasion.

The PRO (Public Record Office) since April 2003 part of the National Archives has its catalogue PROCAT online and they are soon to launch a new research service for distance customers. Most County Record Offices or Archives and all kinds of public and specialist libraries in England now have a presence on the net, and there is a growing number of catalogues and indexes to their resources.

The Catalogue of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (FamilySearch Catalog) should be thoroughly searched under GREAT BRITAIN and ENGLAND, then under the COUNTY and TOWN required, and for categories such as BIOGRAPHY, CEMETERIES, CHURCH DIRECTORIES, CHURCH HISTORY, CHURCH RECORDS, CHURCH RECORDS—INDEXES, DICTIONARIES, DIRECTORIES, JEWISH HISTORY, JEWISH RECORDS, MINORITIES, NATURALIZATION, OBITUARIES, RELIGION and RELIGIOUS LIFE, and SCHOOLS.

The Society of Genealogists’ search service available for a number of relevant indexes held there is summarized by Churchill (Library Searches at the SOG. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 27 #5, page 233-234) and can be accessed online.

The researcher should take care to compare the holdings of the various libraries. For example, Staplehurst Independent Chapel, Kent registers are deposited in the PRO as RG4/2553. The Family History Library has the baptisms and miscellaneous records on FHL films 0597068 and FHL film 1551179, with an index of the baptisms on FHL fiche 6906618(1). There is also an excellent recent transcription of the same registers, here called the Congregational Chapel, by Rickard which contains additional material (see chart below).

Chart: Availability of Staplehurst, Kent Independent/Congregational Records

ITEM FHL FILMS OF ORIGINALS RICKARD TRANSCRIPTION
Births None noted in FamilySearch Catalog A few 1716-1791
Baptisms 1746-1793
1797-1836
1746-1793
1797-1837
Marriages None noted in FamilySearch Catalog 1788-1792
Deaths None noted in FamilySearch Catalog 1787-1793
Burials None noted in FamilySearch Catalog 1842-1912
Misc records 1723-1774
1787-1793 (?deaths)
None

Some of the unique difficulties for Non-Anglican research, which are of-course merely challenges to family historians, are now considered with some ideas for overcoming them.

Fewer Church Buildings

Committed Non-Anglicans travelled great distances in order to baptize their children in a church of their chosen denomination; instances up to 60 miles have been recorded. The researcher needs to discover where the nearest chapels were at the time, and recognize that these may be across a county boundary. Ancestors were more likely confined by geographical obstacles such as a mountain or the lack of a bridge over a river, than mere political ones such as parish, diocesan, registration district or county lines.

Records scattered

There are plenty of records of Non-Anglicans in dispute with the authorities but these tend to be widely scattered in largely unindexed papers of state and ecclesiastical courts. On the other hand some prescient individuals and societies are gathering such items and publishing them in a consolidated format, for example:

  • Bell and Yellowly’s Pre-1837 Non-Anglican Marriages, Durham includes Protestant and Catholic marriages from six parishes in that county on FHL fiche 6359425(1)*.
  • Cambridgeshire FHS’s collection of M.I.s from, United Reform, Baptist, private cemeteries, Public Cemetery, and War Memorial in Fulbourn parish on FHL fiche 6360387(2).

Registers Not Kept

Religious freedom did not occur in England until the late 18th century and at times those who did not conform to the Established Church, be it Roman Catholic or Anglican, were fined, banned from public office and educational institutions, tortured, or even killed. This scenario did not encourage the keeping of records which would identify the adherents of dissenting congregations. The earliest Non-Anglican records are from 1641, some start after the Toleration Act of 1689 but the great majority only date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The sad fact is that there may never have been a record of your ancestor’s birth or baptism if he was born between 1642 and 1780 and his parents did not attend the Anglican Church. The researcher has to concentrate on finding different records which have the advantage of telling a lot more about the ancestor’s life.

Registers lost or in private hands

Even if records survive they may be hard to find and difficult to access. Although the Registrar General attempted to call in all the early Non-Anglican registers in 1837 and again in 1858, he was only partially successful. Most of the registers now in custody are Methodists and the majority of these start after 1780. Of those not received by 1858 some have been well cared for, but inevitably some have not. Some registers were repossessed by the original buyer of the blank book, say when a chapel failed, and the remaining pages put to other purposes such as accounts for a business or farm. Occasional deposits still occur, mainly to county or local archives where they will now be properly conserved and periodic checks of them are appropriate.

Registers used for a Circuit

Births/Baptism and Burial registers of some ministers, notably the Methodists, were carried around from chapel to chapel on a regular circuit. The researcher thus needs to identify the name of the nearest circuit(s) and ministers and search these books. The County Record Office can usually assist in identifying these, and strays lists, which can be accessed through local Family History Societies, are often helpful in finding ‘lost’ Nonconformists.

Registers in Different Formats

This can be good or bad since there were no rules. There may not be as much information as in a contemporary Anglican register. On the other hand, it is common to find the mother’s maiden name and even her parent’s names in a baptismal entry. Quaker marriages are another classic example of extra details As with Anglican registers, the books may contain other material; with Nonconformists membership lists and disciplinary matters are the most frequent extras.



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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Non-Anglican Church Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.